- Commissioner Adam Silver says the NBA is projecting $10 billion in revenue this season, a notable bump from the last two seasons where fan attendance was limited or non-existent.
- But the league will need TV audiences to rebound, and concerns linger about the long-term viability of the cable TV model and regional sports networks.
- Player conflicts and setbacks in China are also troubling.
Adam Silver was all smiles as he entered a New York City hotel last Tuesday to give a room filled with sports executives an update on the National Basketball Association.
The NBA is celebrating 75 years in business, and the next few will be pivotal for Silver's league. The NBA returns to a 82-game format on Tuesday after a pair of seasons shortened by the Covid pandemic, so Silver's address at the Sports Business Journal's World Congress of Sports conference came at the perfect time.
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Covid is still around, but audiences are back in arenas, which is good news for attendance revenue, and Silver told attendees the NBA expects to make $10 billion for its 75th anniversary. He also said NBA game presentations are too "basic" and spoke about the "David Stern Cup" – an in-season tournament the league wants to incorporate this decade. Silver, 59, also reiterated the cable TV bundle needs fixing, as regional sports networks are threatened by cord-cutting.
When it came to the NBA's international business, Silver walked a very safe line. China still hasn't fully re-opened its marketplace to the NBA after Philadelphia 76ers top executive Daryl Morey commented on geopolitical affairs.
The NBA opens with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks playing the Brooklyn Nets on TNT on Tuesday. Here's what's happening with the business in this milestone season.
A $10 billion projection
Silver says the NBA is projecting $10 billion in revenue this season, a notable bump from the last two seasons where fan attendance was limited or non-existent.
NBA revenue slipped from $8.8 billion in 2018-19 to $8.3 billion for the 2019-20 season. The NBA hasn't released revenue numbers for the shortened 72-game season in 2020-21, but Silver addressed reporters on Monday and notified the NBA's revenue was down about 35% last year instead of the estimated 40%.
"We lost significant amounts of money. The good news is we're able to take a long-term view of this business, and continue to grow in it," he said. "We try to look at it as an ongoing investment in the business over a long period of time as opposed to a loss of individual seasons."
Media rights make up roughly $2 billion of the league's revenue. Corporate deals with companies including State Farm, Microsoft, Verizon, and expanded business with Google should align the NBA to pass its record $1.46 billion in sponsorship money.
On the licensing front, the NBA struck an equity deal with Fanatics for its trading card rights. The NBA has a licensing deal with Dapper Labs for its NFTs of video highlights. (It also has equity in the start-up, which now valued at $7 billion.) And Chicago-based manufacturer Wilson starts its new agreement to produce the NBA game basketballs.
Revenue from advertising on league jersey patches should increase as teams secure new agreements. The Nets struck a $30 million per year pact with New York-based brokerage platform Webull, the richest patch deal in the league. The NBA made $150 million in revenue when its patch program was introduced in 2017. And before the pandemic, league executive Amy Brooks projected a 30% increase.
Will viewership rebound?
TV viewership will be essential for Silver's league as it returns to a standard 82-game format. The NBA watched the NFL capture an eleven-year deal worth more than $100 billion deal last summer. The NHL increased its rights, too, thanks to NBA partners ESPN and AT&T's WarnerMedia.
Silver told the crowd last Tuesday that the NBA's overall viewership is down. That's a problem if "generally 99%" of NBA fans "never step foot in an NBA arena," as the league said in the past. The NBA wants to triple its rights fee, so a bounce-back in viewership would help.
The NBA's last opening week started late December 2020 because of the pandemic. The league said games between Dec. 22 to Dec. 25 averaged 3.4 million viewers. That included a Christmas game between the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the NBA's biggest star in LeBron James, and the Dallas Mavericks, with rising star Luka Doncic, that averaged 7 million viewers.
On Tuesday, the NBA will see if any one of its games will surpass 3.5 million viewers. That number comes from the NBA's last regular opener in October 2019, when the Lakers played the Clippers and averaged 3.58 million viewers on TNT.
Silver's league could achieve that number with the TNT broadcast of the Lakers playing the Golden State Warriors, featuring the league's two biggest superstars, James and Steph Curry. The last time the two teams were featured was in a game for a playoff spot in May, and the contest averaged 5.6 million viewers.
But the league's biggest event is the NBA Finals, and the last two years' results were way down.
July's Bucks versus Phoenix Suns NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers overall. That was up 32% from the 2020 NBA bubble Finals featuring the Lakers and Miami Heat, which averaged 7.5 million viewers. But it was way down from the six-game series between the Warriors and Toronto Raptors in 2019, which averaged 15.1 million viewers. (Scheduling may have played a factor, as fewer people were watching TV this July, the NBA says.)
And that was a decline from previous years. The 2018 series, between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers (where James then played) averaged 17.6 million in four games, and the five-game series in 2017 between the same two teams averaged 20.4 million viewers.
Silver also warned the cable TV business model could break as cord-cutting increases.
The NBA's national media rights are tied to its high franchise values. As more people abandon cable, regional sports networks could see their audiences collapse. Team revenues linked to local TV media deals would suffer and exposure would drop, creating a sort of downward spiral.
But Clippers owner Steve Ballmer didn't seem worried about the state of cable TV when he spoke to CNBC last month.
"The revenue that comes from people enjoying our games, who are not in the stadium, I don't think that is going to bust. Now how we get that revenue, there's a lot of open questions," he admitted.
"Will they be big media contracts from people who are on cable in broadcast TV? Will the players change, and companies like Amazon, Apple, and the streaming guys what to come into the game, as opposed to just the ESPN and Turner?"
Ballmer continued, "Will there be some direct-to-consumer offer by the league, which is certainly a possibility? There's a lot to be figured out, and I have a lot of confidence in Adam and Bill [Koenig NBA's president of global content and media distribution] at the league office to sort that through."
Vaccines and Sixers star troubles
The NBA was first to stop play when Covid hit in March 2020. But it's the last of the top U.S pro leagues to return to a regular format, and Covid is still at the forefront of the league's concerns.
Silver said roughly 96% of NBA players are vaccinated. But some players, including Nets star guard Kyrie Irving, are against mandating the vaccination. It's causing problems as the NBA obeys local government policies that require people to be vaccinated before entering public places.
"There's a whole lot of ignorance on the part of players who will not get vaccinated," said former NBA player turned scholar Len Elmore told CNBC last month. "The NBA is flexing its muscle and has to support mandates for the greater good because that's really what we're talking about here."
Earlier this month, the league and NBA players union agreed that unvaccinated players who miss games in because of local Covid regulations would lose a proportional portion of their salary for each game.
The Nets have sidelined Irving, who was scheduled to make $34 million this season, because he remains unvaccinated. Although players who aren't vaccinated can still play in road games, the Nets didn't want to risk team continuity.
His absence is an unwelcome distraction, though. The Nets are one of the main attractions for the NBA this year, and with Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden, were favorites to win the championship. It would be the first NBA title won by a New York team since 1973.
NBA media partners were also banking on the Nets. The team has more than 20 national games among Disney-owned networks ABC and ESPN, and WarnerMedia's Turner Sports. And the league wouldn't mind a Nets versus Los Angeles Lakers NBA Finals as it draws the top two TV markets.
A quick drive down Interstate 95, the Philadelphia 76ers are also garnering distracting headlines around the future of all-star Ben Simmons.
The 76ers and Simmons reunited last week after he missed training camp due to his offseason trade demands. Publicly, the 76ers claim they want to retain Simmons and repair a damaged relationship. In discussing the matter, rival execs suggest to CNBC that 76ers executive Daryl Morey has sought four first-round draft picks with three options to swap picks in some packages. (These executives spoke to CNBC on condition of remaining anonymous as they aren't allowed to comment on team affairs.)
That would be a steep price for Simmons, who didn't exactly help his value during the last postseason with a middling performance against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, who knocked the top-seeded 76ers out of the playoffs.
The NBA's big trade last season involved Harden. In that three-team deal, Morey's former club, the Houston Rockets, received three first-round draft picks and four first-round pick swaps. But Harden is a former NBA MVP and 11-time All-Star. Hence, Nets owner Joe Tsai had no problem giving up the assets. If Morey tries to stick with a similar formula for Simmons, it could be hard for the 76ers to find a taker.
While trades are contemplated, the 76ers culture and team continuity will be tested with Simmons back following an eventful training camp.
The 76ers open the season on Wednesday in New Orleans. The big moment arrives Friday when they play the Nets in Philadelphia. It would be the first time Simmons faces the team's fan base following the trade demands – if he plays.
A future in Africa
On the international business side, the relationship with China is still rocky.
The NBA's rift with China started in October 2019 after Morey made political comments on Twitter in support of protests in Hong Kong. The country then stripped NBA games from state-run CCTV. That cost the NBA $200 million.
Before the rift, the NBA's business in China was worth about $5 billion. Asked if China still wants the NBA, Silver told the room: "I assume so." That guess was based on the fact NBA games are allowed to stream in China. Tencent pays the NBA $1.5 billion for those rights.
When asked by CNBC on Monday if NBA games would return on CCTV this season, Silver said: "It's unclear whether we'll be back on CCTV this year. Our projections are not dependent on it."
But while it repairs its affairs in China, the NBA is targeting India and its growing middle-class. And the league launched its Africa business that's estimated to bring in $1 billion.
NBA Africa will oversee the league's business throughout the continent, including operating Basketball Africa League, which launched last May. Silver envisions basketball being a top sport throughout Africa in 10 years and wants to position NBA owners want to leverage one of the fastest-growing markets on the planet. The sub-Saharan population in Africa is about 1.07 billion, according to the United Nations.
Despite the pandemic losses and challenges that await, Silver got the league to its 75th anniversary. The next step is aligning the NBA with a post-Covid world.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the NBA's streaming deal with Tencent.